Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat is a record you should all own, on vinyl of course: if nothing else you can spend hours looking at the album cover. That was something I liked doing when I was a child. Now I don’t actually own that record and it makes me sad. Unfortunately, none of the songs are about cats, not even the title track. On the other hand, none of the songs are about Hitler either, so it’s a little bit less of a challenging listen than some of his other records. It’s still Al Stewart, though, so it may be dressed as 70’s soft rock, but it’s music for people with PhD’s. As opposed to all of the high school dropout types who usually listen to music.
Ça fait rien. Wings are really criminally underrated. They’re not, like, The Beatles or anything but… But of course that’s woefully unfair to say. It’s Paul McCartney at or very near the top of his game, which is always a welcome thing to hear. McCartney’s lifelong problem, notoriously, is that he badly needs someone to bring some pith to his sweetness. None of the members of Wings were ever near John Lennon’s level of salty, but they provided just enough leavening. A good-natured attitude is an underrated quality in entertainment, and people with la-di-da attitudes were nearly their most unfashionable in 1976. But, come on, have some positivity.
Okay, here’s one you probably all know. It’s one of Bob Marley’s most popular songs. I’d say that for many of us, it’s been part of the wallpaper of our lives since childhood. It’s just one of those songs that’s about as universal as a composition can be. It’s nice to see a little video and get a sense of who made the music. Funny how Bob Marley and the Wailers were rarely asked to appear on Top of the Pops-type television shows. It’s probably because they didn’t look much like most of the artists who appeared on those shows. Ahem. Well, they probably didn’t love miming in front of a blank studio screen either.
I don’t like opera and I don’t like ballet
And new wave french movies, they just drive me away
I guess I’m just dumb, ’cause I know that I ain’t smart
But deep down inside, I got a rock ‘n’ roll heart
– Lou Reed
Lou Reed had already written the ultimate testimony to the power and importance of rock music with his earlier song, but he wasn’t done. He still had more to say. Rock & Roll was a song about the way rock music opened a gateway to a different world. For the young Lou Reed, and for many many other young people, it was a glimpse of the person they could become and the life they could go on to lead, very different from what they’d grown up expecting for themselves. Rock and Roll Heart is a song about how, as you get older, that same music isn’t just entertainment or a teenage fad. It’s a culture, and it’s your culture. In the years when Lou Reed and his generation were growing up, there was the high culture of opera and ballet and things you learned about at college, and there was trash culture. Rock music (along with comic books, detective novels, television series, etc.) was trash culture for juvenile delinquents and the barely-literate proletariat. Today it’s hard to grasp that distinction, but back then it was a cultural divide. You couldn’t have both, and you couldn’t live in both worlds. You couldn’t be a college educated intellectual and claim that rock music was valid and culturally important, unless you were making an argument that it was corrupting our youth and hastening the fall of Western civilization. Lou Reed, an educated intellectual, said “Fuck high culture, rock and roll is the culture now.” Thus hastening the demise of Western civilization as his generation knew it, and ushering in global pop culture as we know it now.
As a policy, I have to state that I am firmly against cattiness, gossip, judgement and self-expression shaming, in all of their forms. It is wrong. Oh, who am I kidding? There’s nothing in the world more fun than being catty at someone behind their back. We all do it. With relish. All the time. No matter who we are, or what our station in life is, we will never hesitate to eviscerate a total stranger’s choice of clothing. Just yesterday I heard a homeless man go into a rant about people who wear knitted hats; he was offended by a hipster in a bright orange knitted beanie. He was right. It was a terrible hat. So yeah, making fun of the poorly dressed, the pretentious, the basic, and the try-too-hards is one of life’s great joys. This Blondie song is the ultimate anthem and the ultimate send-up for anyone who’s ever enjoyed the sport of talking shit about people. If that stings coming from someone as impeccable as Debbie Harry, just remember that she left the back of her head its natural color because she sucked at dyeing her own hair.
Blondie’s music is always such a shot of vitality. It’s music to listen to in cold weather, because it gets the blood pumping. And on the dance floor, of course. I’m sure that Debbie Harry with her attitude and glamour was like a bolt of lightning in the dark, coming into the punk scene in the seventies. That attitude and style hasn’t aged in the intervening years, and the neither has the music. Like I said yesterday, things that have achieved classic status are immune to changing fashions.
Cold War dreams of nuclear annihilation, contaminated generations. Maybe some of you are too young to remember the fears that struck people’s hearts throughout the Cold War decades. Some of you may have been weaned on modern fears like global warming and super-viruses and the impending Singularity. Some of us don’t worry about those things because we’re lying awake at night waiting for the air raid sirens. (Some of us have epigenetic nightmares about air raids.) And many of us still break out in cold sweats when certain words are invoked; radioactivity, Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Plutonium, atom bomb, meltdown, nuclear winter. We were taught that the world would end in mushroom clouds and uncontrolled cell division. Those fears may not feel relevant, not die Angst vor dem Tag, as it were. The members of Kraftwerk were all born in Germany in the immediate wake of the Second World War – a particularly traumatic spot in space and time, obviously – making them members of a uniquely scarred subgroup in a scarred generation. The fears and angers that haunted humanity in the decades after the war must have been a hundredfold for children born and raised in its still-smoking epicenter. Some of them responded by making art about what it means to be human and what it means to be a machine and what ends celebrated scientific progress can be turned to. That certainly hasn’t become any less relevant, and even if the specific keywords have been pushed to the back burner of our collective nightmares, the warning still hits home. And, yes, that nuclear arsenal, though it may not be a popular headline anymore, it still exists, and is still likely to end us all well before super-AIDS or mass famine have the chance to.